27 March 2024

Review: Bizarre London by David Long

Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long book cover

Browsing the shelves of my local library, I came across an attractive hardback copy of Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long. I was convinced to take it out on loan after browsing the contents page and spying enticing chapter headings like: Gruesome London, Ghostly London and Dead London alongside Shopping London, Working London and Parliamentary London.

The content was short and sharp with plenty of easily digestible facts from history one after the other. Bizarre London is easy to dip into although I chose to read it straight through.

I think I've mentioned my fascination with the freezing over of the Thames river before, but I enjoyed this tidbit:
"Overall, London's coldest ever year was almost certainly 1684, when the Thames froze in central London from bank to bank, to a depth of 11 in., and remained that way for nearly two months. (Albeit for shorter periods this happened a further fifteen times, the last being in 1814, which was the year of the final 'Frost Fair'. Page 121
The introduction of better bridges means this no longer happens in central London, and in fact the last time the Thames froze over was the year 1963 and it happened at Kingston-upon-Thames.

Continuing with the theme of London's weather and another of my favourite London facts, the period of intensely dense fog in December 1952:
"Since then [1873's record-breaking run of seventy-four foggy days], the worst pea-souper was in December 1952, which led to as many as 12,000 deaths - from respiratory illness as well as accidents involving people who couldn't see traffic - and some 100,000 cases of medical illness." Page 122
These kinds of conditions are hard to imagine, although viewers of Season 1 of The Crown might remember the scene.

Some interesting facts from this century included the chapter entitled Eating by Numbers, where we learn that during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games:
"...deliveries to the athletes' village included 25,000 loaves of bread, 232 tons of potatoes and 82 tons of seafood, more than 100 tons of meat, 19 tons of eggs and 21 tons of cheese. Fruit and veg accounted for another 360 tons of deliveries." Page 137
Wow, now that's impressive!

Published in 2013, much of the content within Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long was dry and factual but doesn't date, however I'm sure an updated edition will be of interest to future readers.

My Rating:

22 March 2024

Review: Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince book cover

Here's what I know for sure after reading this book. Robin Ince is extremely well read. Robin Ince knows a LOT about books. Robin Ince buys an extraordinary amount of books. Robin Ince is a bibliomaniac.

In his aptly titled book Bibliomaniac - An Obsessive's Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, author Robin Ince sets out to visit more than 100 bookshops in 100 days. The year was 2021 and bookshops were welcoming authors back for events. Reading this travelogue of sorts about his experiences along the way was interesting.

My introduction to Robin Ince came courtesy of attending the Professor Brian Cox Universal World Tour in June 2019 and a few years later, the Professor Brian Cox Horizons - A 21st Century Space Odyssey in October 2022. Robin Ince was the award-winning comedian and warm-up act for Cox and finding out he was an obsessive book lover piqued my interest.

Ince declares early on that books define him, books are the reason he stopped drinking heavily and that he sleeps with books piled on the bed and I'll admit I began to worry a little. In the Introduction he lays his bibliomania bare:
"At one stage my house became so swamped with books that I donated more than 1,000 of them to Leicester Prison and got rid of a further 5,000 more to charities. And yet I know that my house is still overrun, always on the cusp of being justifiable grounds for divorce." Page 4
This was another dual audio and print reading experience, and the occasional mention of an interesting sounding book or anecdote motivated me to put this down and head off to find out more. Here's one in reference to Charles Darwin in Chapter 6:
"There are no new tattoos to see after the show tonight, but I have a happy conversation with a shy young person who has recently become inspired to study horticulture. This leads to yet another conversation about Charles Darwin, this time about his earthworm experiments - any excuse to bring up the bassoon." Page 160
There were many in jokes along the way like this one about the bassoon* but I didn't understand many of them because I lacked the broad depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects required to chuckle along and marvel at the author's treasure trove of interesting and engaging facts.

Ince readily confesses that he doesn't read books end to end or sequentially, and instead he dips in and out of them in a fashion that started to stress me out. I have a completely different approach to reading and acquiring books, and despite our shared love of books and reading, I couldn't relate to his reading style:
"I am sometimes asked how I read so much. I commit the cardinal sin among some bookish people: I leave books unfinished. I hop in and out of them, grabbing an anecdote, an idea or a philosophy and then putting them on the teetering 'to be continued' pile." Page 4
I don't mind leaving a book unfinished, but I don't understand how a reader can grab an anecdote or philosophy in any detail with this approach and Ince readily confesses that in his desire to know everything, he ends up knowing nothing. Here's a taste of his reading style, can you relate?
"I have half a bottle of red, a packet of pistachio cookies and solitude. I spread out my books and read five random pages from each one. Short of focus, I decide not to focus and read erratically, bouncing in and out of books until, exhausted by other people's ideas, I fall asleep with a book across my face." Page 266
While that might sound like absolute heaven to some book lovers, it sounds haphazard and chaotic to me and I found it hard to relate to his specific type of bibliomania.

Some of the conversations Ince has with customers, event attendees and booksellers sound truly fascinating and I bet meeting him in person would be a stimulating experience. I love hearing how he curates a different pile of books in each bookshop and uses them to inform the topic of his speech. This is a terrific way to ensure his presentations are always unique and never become stale, they also enable a last minute, ad hoc approach to the event that made the organiser in me feel uneasy.

Often rushing for the train or running overtime during his events - albeit with permission, but honestly, who's going to say no? - Ince relies on lifts from friends, booksellers and agents to get him to and from train stations and the more than 100 bookshops visited; often staying the night wherever he can.

The author is the kind of guy who buys his own books (Page 194) and in one chapter, he recalls taking a half full bottle of wine from his event to drink on the train trip home (Page 203) while reading a new acquisition. Barely mentioning his wife or family, Ince does tell us his wife doesn't want him bringing books back from the book tour, so he sneaks home at one point to offload a tonne of books and then stealthily leaves again. What a guy!

Despite considering myself somewhat well read and reasonably knowledgable about books, I could probably count on one hand the number of books I'd actually heard of or read myself from the hundreds mentioned throughout the 300+ pages. While I focus on non fiction and relatively recent fiction, the author's interests seem to orbit around non fiction (so many memoirs) and horror novels.

Aspects of my reaction to Bibliomaniac reminded me of my experience reading Back Story by David Mitchell, in so far as I think I'd have been better off admiring the work of both authors and comedians from afar, rather than delving deeper and reading their memoir.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince wasn't the TBR expanding experience I hoped it would be. I didn't add a single book mentioned to my TBR although I did do some serious Googling. I never found myself looking forward to the next chapter, wondering, "oooh, I wonder what he’ll find in Leeds" or "I wonder what obscure title he'll discover in the 37th Oxfam charity shop of the tour."

I've concluded Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince has a somewhat limited reading appeal, so readers familiar with the bookshops on the tour and who are extraordinarily well read, love collecting rare and valuable books, enjoy horror and find almost any topic fascinating will love this. I find many topics interesting too, but I don't buy books with a plan to never read more than a few pages.

* Apparently Darwin tested the hearing of earthworms by having his son play his bassoon really loudly to prove they don't have ears or a sense of hearing.

My Rating:

19 March 2024

Review: The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy

The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy book cover

I didn't plan on reading two time travel books back to back, yet found myself in this position when reading The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy straight after The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown. Given to me by a friend, The Other Side of Night is David Asha's story told from multiple viewpoints and a series of excerpts and extracts.

Harriet Kealty is a disgraced police officer trying to clear her name when she stumbles across a plea for help and a potential kidnapping. Deciding to investigate, she soon recognises a familiar name, Ben Elmys.

At times reminding me of the TV show Fringe, the layers build to create a story-within-a-story covering big life themes, like this character insight about our very existence:
"In a hundred years our suffering and tears and laughter and happiness will all be forgotten, replaced by another generation whose existences are equally transient and meaningless, and yet deeply meaningful and significant to them and those they love. Our ability to know we are nothing while perceiving we are everything has driven some mad, and it almost broke me during those dark days." Page 275
The story-within-a-story structure began to grow thin for me as I struggled a little with the time travel aspects of the novel. In fact, I chuckled in recognition when I read the following line:
"I'm not sure she ever fully understood how to think in four dimensions, the idea that what happens had to have happened, but she smiled sympathetically..." Page 323
In hindsight, I should have taken some time (pun intended) before punching my time travel ticket again, yet I enjoyed untangling the mystery to reveal the clever twist at the end. Hamdy makes the reader question what we think we know about the past, the present and of course the future:
"Time is an illusion our minds create to give us a sense of direction." Page 331
The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy is a stand alone science fiction novel about love, loss, sacrifice, fate, the passage of time and memories and is recommended for fans of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.

My Rating:

11 March 2024

Review: The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown has the potential to take out 'best cover design' for 2024 as determined here at Carpe Librum. Let's just take a minute to soak in the beauty that is the dark blue Victorian damask wallpaper background, punctuated by the inviting bookish staircase made from gorgeous looking leather bound books with subtle gold detailing, echoed around the corners of the front cover.

In the design, the door is a book and this is The Book of Doors, what's not to love?

Astonishingly well written and structured for a debut, The Book of Doors immediately grabbed my attention with settings to tempt, tease and tantalise any book lover:
"Just like the store, the house was full of books - no shelf was bare, no book alone and seeking company - but it was more than that. The house was full of warm corners and quiet places, pleasantly creaking floorboards and draughts of air coming from unseen gaps. The lighting was soft, and the colours muted and warm, interrupted only by the shimmering dark green of the trees outside when glimpsed through windows in passing. It was a building that welcomed people who wanted comfort and silence, who wanted space to contemplate. It had an air of formality, but not stiffness, like a smartly dressed grandfather telling a rude joke." Page 135-136
Our characters fall in love with the house and I did too! Cassie works as a bookseller at a bookshop in New York and the story begins when a regular customer gives her a book with an inscription inside. Cassie is over the moon when she learns the book is a one of a kind with the ability to turn any door into a door to anywhere. Cassie then discovers there are more books with differing powers, actively being sought by eccentric collectors, nefarious actors and scary people who travel the world hunting the books for their own dark purposes.

You should know, this is a fantasy novel and there is time travel. In fact, in the words of Drummond Fox (one of the novel's characters), there is a little 'time-travel jiggery-pokery' to untangle but thankfully the author breaks it down by cleverly providing a detailed explanation of two types of time travel. There is the open model and the closed model, and they're explained to the reader in a conversation flashback as follows:
"In the open model, you can travel into the past and change events so that your present is consequently changed also. This is what you see in science-fiction stories. You go back and do something and history changes." Page 153
Yes! Reading this I was instantly reminded of 11.22.63 by Stephen King, where the main character (MC) goes back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK. The flashback sequence in The Book of Doors continues to explain the closed model:
"You cannot change events from what has already happened. If you go back and do something in the past, then that already happened in the past and is part of history. It is part of what made your present be the present that it is, the present that you departed from when you went into the past." Page 153
It's the latter form of time travel experienced by the characters in The Book of Doors, and thankfully I wasn't too lost as it seemed the author maintained a tight grip on the reins of time-travel lore. The writing is rich and evocative and I loved learning about the other special books, the powers they held and the motives of those seeking them. The book of pain was the most intriguing as it has the power to cause and remove pain. I was most entertained during Cassie's early exploration using the book of doors and managed to keep up with the narrative when it otherwise could have been a tad timey-wimey. My only sticking point was the origin story for the books was a little too much for this book lover.

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown is an impressive debut and the first possible contender for my Top 5 Books of 2024. Highly recommended for book lovers and readers who enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow or believe books are magic portals, even when they're not.

Not sure? Read a free extract or listen to a free 5 minute sample of the audiobook on the publisher's website.

My Rating: